Musa Al-Shaer / AFP / Getty Images

Peace process over, it’s Year Zero for Israelis and Palestinians

Analysis: Israel’s shift to the right has entrenched the occupation for the foreseeable future

A month from now, Israel will mark 20 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accord. The night he was shot by a Jewish nationalist, Yigal Amir, Rabin appeared onstage at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, where he joined singer Miri Aloni, delivering an off-key and embarrassed rendition of the famous 1960s anti-war song “Shir LaShalom” (“Song to Peace”). A blood-spattered leaflet bearing the song’s lyrics was found in his suit pocket and became an enduring metaphor for the tragedy.

Worse was to come: Thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis have been killed in the two decades of violence that followed — a cycle once again on the uptick. Today Aloni makes her living as a busker. Twice a week, she cradles her guitar on a stool outside Tel Aviv’s squalid Carmel Market and performs her golden oldies for spare change, yelling at people who try to take her photograph. Thus the fortunes of what was once known as Israel’s peace camp.

Two decades after Rabin’s assassination, the occupation that was supposed to be ended by the Oslo process has been deepened and widened. The physical restrictions under which Palestinians live are far more onerous today than they were in 1987, when the first intifada broke out. Back then, Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem could still travel freely throughout the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. And there were several hundred thousand fewer settlers living in those occupied territories. Still, back then Palestinians were also jailed for involvement in any kind of political activity, even for waving a Palestinian flag. And, as today, those living under occupation had no democratic rights in the state that ruled over them and were denied civil liberties. One difference, of course, is that today there’s a willing Palestinian participant in that repression, in the form of the Palestinian Authority’s security services.

The uprising of 1987 to 1990 that saw Palestinian youths facing down Israeli armor with stones and Molotov cocktails may have been an expression of hopelessness and despair. But it led to something that was, at the time, considered a victory: The Madrid Conference, followed by the Oslo Accord, the return of Yasser Arafat to Palestinian territory, the raising of the Palestinian flag and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority to preside over the infrastructure of self-governance ahead of a transition to Palestinian statehood.

Many Israelis and Palestinians saw these developments as launching an irreversible momentum toward ending the conflict by creating a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. That remained conventional wisdom among many for the first six years after Rabin’s assassination, despite election of Benjamin Netanyahu — an implacable opponent of Oslo — as prime minister. Many viewed even the ongoing settlement expansion as an irrelevant, last-gasp provocation from the right that would inevitably be reversed when a final agreement was concluded.

For Palestinians, however, the ongoing settlement expansion not only meant more land confiscated and increased restrictions on their freedom of movement; it was also taken as a sign that Israel had no real intention of withdrawing from the occupied territories.

The failure of the Camp David and Taba talks to conclude the Oslo process confirmed that suspicion in the minds of many, and what followed was the second intifada and the suicide bombings and the Israeli army’s reoccupation of much of the West Bank.

Ariel Sharon, whose provocative show of force in the precincts of Al-Aqsa Mosque in August of 2000 triggered the protests that marked the start of the second intifada, used the suicide bombings to justify building the security barrier, which was planned under previous governments. Sharon, a longtime champion of the settler movement, was elected prime minister in 2001 and used the building of the wall as an excuse to carry out a land grab — its route deviated from the Green Line boundary between Israel and the occupied territories, resulting in the uprooting and dispersion of Palestinians whose homes were demolished and the separation of villages from their farmland to make room for the wall.

Those settlements have only expanded in the ensuing decade, gobbling up more privately held Palestinian land, while the Palestinian Authority has coordinated with Israel to suppress all political and security challenges. Even more desperate is the plight of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, who live in squalor and despair as more and more settlers arrive, in violation of international law but sanctioned by Israel’s courts and under the protection of Israeli security forces.

The end of Oslo and, with it, the prospect of ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was Netanyahu’s stated intention when he emerged as a contender for prime minister back in the early ’90s. During the months leading up to Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu gave fiery anti-Oslo speeches at settler rallies where participants denounced Rabin as a traitor — and the slain prime minister’s widow, Leah Rabin, publicly blamed Netanyahu and his party for creating the atmosphere that led to his murder. 

Today, Netanyahu, in his fourth term, looks set to remain in power for many years to come. The Israeli peace camp barely exists in a society that has shifted so sharply to the right that there are few discernible differences between the government and the opposition when it comes to relations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu never changed his mind about Oslo, even if diplomatic expediency occasionally prompted him to declare a willingness to accept a two-state solution — but only upon fulfillment of a series of conditions that rendered it effectively impossible.

Oslo has been dismantled, but nothing has been built in its place. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is back at Year Zero, although this time with a more primal, intimate form of violence. Teenage Palestinians stab random strangers; security forces in Israel shoot young Palestinians armed with knives while Israeli crowds scream encouragement. The mayor of Jerusalem drives his Mercedes through Palestinian East Jerusalem with one hand on the wheel and the other on an automatic weapon, while ostensibly responsible politicians call for vigilante violence against Palestinians. No one knows what the endgame is this time. There doesn’t seem to be one.

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